Political Tourism in Jerusalem

There is certainly more than one way to see Jerusalem, which, since 1967, is either a reunited city or one half under occupation.

On a recent visit to Jerusalem, two tours of the city and its surroundings underlined the disparities in what different people see in the city- Jews, Arabs, residents, tourists - which is also to say what they choose not to see.

My first night in the Old City was spent on a tour of the Jewish Quarter and the excavated tunnel that runs the full length of the Western Wall, below the stone houses of the Muslim Quarter, along the bedrock of the city.

The tunnel has never been a stranger to controversy. Riots during the tunnel's opening in 1996 - Yasser Arafat alleged it was all an effort to force a collapse of the Haram al-Sharif - left 70 Palestinians and 16 Israelis dead.

The tour began with a Zionist sweep of the Old City for a nearly all-Jewish audience, myself and my partner excluded. Framed in an exclusively Jewish narrative, it gave space to "others" - Arabs, Muslims, even Romans - only by simplistically accounting for how they have either destroyed, desecrated, built on top of, or occupied a "historically Jewish" city.

Like many Israelis, our state-registered Jerusalem tour guide (there is a rigorous application and schooling process) was a transplanted American.

His card promised "Not just a tour, a Spiritual Adventure!"

On rooftops that faced the Dome of the Rock, he pointed down to stone air ducts opening to the covered "Muslim market" below.

His coverage of the market was meant to highlight the layering of Jerusalem, a city always building on top of something else, a stream he had started at the excavated Cardo, the remains of a Roman thoroughfare.

Instead, a young Jewish couple living in Jerusalem looked down in a mix of awe and fear.

"Have you ever been through it?" the husband asked.

"Of course not," a father, visiting from New York, replied. "Why would you?"

There on the rooftops, the father would not let his daughter pose for a photo with the Dome of the Rock in the background. She thought the building was beautiful.

The tour extended through the Jewish Quarter, with histories of the First and Second Temples, their destructions, and the apparently uneven demographics of the Old City.

The guide noted that the Muslim Quarter was not a proper one-fourth of the Old City at all - it was in fact much larger than the Jewish, Christian, and the Armenian quarters.

Clearly, he meant to reduce the place to neat but dehistoricized fractions - the quarters of Jerusalem should be even, like a pizza - while ignoring an historic Arab population and saying nothing of the Palestinian population in the Old City, and throughout East Jerusalem who are currently either living under occupation or with effective second-class citizenship as Israeli Arabs.

Later on in the tour of the touristy Western Wall tunnel, a large motorized model of Jerusalem made the Muslim Quarter, built along one of the remaining walls of the Temple Mount (al-Haram al-Sharif), descend out of sight, intending to show Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple.

"Can you do that with the Dome of the Rock?" the father from New York quipped.

The hate usually allocated in the Western press for Israel's enemies only - Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran - was sitting next to me and coming from an American Jew who cynically kept referring to Muslims as "our cousins, the unruly relatives."

Days later, a minivan left from a popular East Jerusalem hotel for a Palestinian-led tour of "political Jerusalem." The group was a few Americans and a few Diaspora Palestinians, visiting from Europe and the United States.

We drove in and around the sprawling Jerusalem municipality, visiting newly expanded settlements, completed and under-construction sections of the concrete separation wall, recently demolished Palestinian homes, and the Draconian Kalandia checkpoint, which leads north to Ramallah.

The tour ended on a hill overlooking the Palestinian town of Abu Dis, which sits in a shrinking space between guard towers, walls and checkpoints and the suburban development of Maale Abumim, the largest of Israeli settlement blocs on the occupied West Bank.

The sprawling settlement, begun in 1975 and now home to more than 30,000 families, is farther east from the center of Jerusalem than its neighboring Arab villages, cutting them off from any contiguity with the West Bank.

Settlements and occupation could not have been further from the itinerary of the Western Wall tunnel tour.

Touching the wet bedrock of Biblical Mount Moriah underneath the Old City, we were encouraged to make spiritual connections with the excavations.

Running explicitly through the tour was collective hope for the construction of the Third Temple - a place supposedly for all religions - while conveniently ignoring the third holiest site in Islam that sits on the same real estate.

Both tours represented different visions and different agendas.

The first was a felt need to prove a dogmatic view of Jewish heritage over Jerusalem that has always been threatened and is only recently resurgent.

The second was an interest in getting outside of the Old City to see the political realities of an ever-expanding Jerusalem municipality, with concrete walls and illegal settlements, forty years after 1967.

The Israeli tour of the Old City was consciously divorced from the Palestinian tour of East Jerusalem, creating the peculiar situation of a tour of Jerusalem's long history that either ignored or tried to nullify decades of recent events in historic Palestine.

I crossed Allenby Bridge into Jordan the afternoon of the East Jerusalem tour, where I wondered which was worse: the obvious ideological and informative gaps between the two tours, or my assumption that neither tour group would have willingly switched places.

Whether to confront the lived realities of occupation that are too painfully clear to one side, or to recognize the extremes of orthodoxy and the ideological denials of the other, each group ought to have taken the other's tour.